Belmont Sheriff: Gunfire Justified

BELLAIRE – Police Chief Mike Kovalyk and Belmont County Sheriff Dave Lucas said a deputy was justified when he shot out a tire of a would-be getaway car Thursday morning in the Eastern Division Court parking lot that was populated with bystanders.

Traveling in that vehicle was Sylvester Walker, who police said fled court after a judge revoked his bond and ordered him taken into custody. Walker’s girlfriend, Nicole Gust, was behind the wheel of the car.

Walker, 20, of Wheeling is being held without bond in the Belmont County Jail in St. Clairsville on a charge of escape. Gust, 19, of Bellaire is also being held without bond on three counts of felonious assault and a single count of complicity to escape.

According to a witness in the courtroom, Judge John A. Vavra revoked Walker’s bond in court around 10 a.m. Thursday. Walker then ran from the courtroom and attempted to leave the parking lot in a black Fiat with Maryland license plates that was being driven by Gust, a second witness said.

“I just couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe he ran like that,” said a man who declined to be identified, but was in the courtroom when Walker fled.

After issuing a verbal warning to the driver to stop, the Belmont County sheriff’s deputy fired two shots at the vehicle, striking and deflating the tire on the front passenger side.

A woman, who also did not want to be identified, was outside of the courthouse when Walker jumped into the car. The woman said she clearly heard officers warn Gust to stop the vehicle.

“They said ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it,'” the witness recalled. “Then I heard shots.”

As the deputy tried to apprehend Walker, the two struggled and the suspect slipped out of his shirt. Walker ran shirtless from the scene with deputies in pursuit near the Bellaire High School football field.

He ran into nearby McMahon Creek, where he was caught and taken into custody by sheriff’s deputies.

Gust was screaming as deputies escorted her from the courthouse in handcuffs and placed her in a deputy’s cruiser.

“I got $1,000 bond money in my purse,” she yelled. “I know how much is in there, too. I know how you people do.” Gust’s mother was yelling from the driver’s seat of a car in the parking lot, as well, and law enforcement ordered her multiple times to lower her voice or she would be arrested.

Attorney Tom Ryncarz said he was appointed to represent Walker, but had not conferred with him prior to Vavra ordering he be incarcerated and Walker’s subsequent escape attempt.

Officers from the Bellaire, Bridgeport, Martins Ferry and Shadyside police departments converged on the area, along with additional Belmont County sheriff’s deputies and Highway Patrol troopers.

Kovalyk and Lucas voiced their unequivocal support for the actions of all the responding officers, including the deputy who fired the shots. The deputy was not identified, but court officials confirmed that Deputy Tim Scott was serving as the courtroom bailiff when Walker fled.

Police secured the scene around the car with yellow police tape, and spent shell casings were marked on the pavement. Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations agents also traveled to the scene Thursday.

Bellaire police are handling the investigation. The vehicle, which Kovalyk said was a rental, will be impounded. There was also a dog in the car, and the animal was turned over to Belmont County Animal Control.

Kovalyk said Walker has been arrested multiple times, mostly for drug charges. Walker pleaded guilty earlier this year in Ohio County Circuit Court in a case in which he shoved a gun in his grandmother’s face. He also has a court appearance for a domestic battery charge against Gust scheduled for Tuesday in front of Ohio County Magistrate Joe Roxby.